Then it’s a matter of exercising your awareness so as to look at things from another perspective than that of the personal – Maurice Maeterlinck.
It was raining. A dirty little fine grey rain that had lasted for two days.
All along the quays the moored barges, streaming with water, shone as though newly redecorated. The rain enhanced the boats.
Parallel to the canal bank, on the other side of the embankment, dismal little houses with desolate facades.
Bent under a big black waterproof, the ferryman returned to his hut made of planking.
He settled himself in front of the little stove, comfortable and warm, and gazed at his gently steaming trouser bottoms.
He was a tranquil old man, taciturn, stoical. In the summer, he allowed himself to bake in the sun, lolling in his ferryboat, calling out – when he wasn’t dozing – a friendly good day to the sailors and oarsmen. When bad weather arrived he smoked his pipe in his refuge amidst coal and waste pieces of wood that had been scavenged as the opportunity allowed. During seasons of bad weather he was rarely disturbed other than by workers coming and going from the factory on the far bank.
So he was startled when an unknown individual pushed open the door of his shelter, abruptly rousing him from his reverie.
“Can I warm myself a bit?”
The man was still young, his face drawn and bitter. He wasn’t badly dressed, but his soaked overcoat was stiff and heavy. He moved his arms unhappily. For sure there must have been holes in his sleeves. One of his hands even tugged rather comically at the bottom of his breeches. He should have sat down in the damp atmosphere. He remained on his feet, hands held out to the heat.
The ferryman wasn’t talkative. Neither was his visitor. And so they only swapped brief and infrequent comments. The bad weather. The stove was burning well.
When the factory siren wailed it’s shrill wail, the old man got up, put on his waterproof and asked,
“Do you want to cross over?”
The stranger thought for a moment, smiled sadly and replied,
“What’s the use? One side is as good as the other.”
Then he sat down on the rickety chair that had just been vacated.
The ferryman went out, hauled his boat along the cable to the other bank and returned with a full load of workers. These went their ways in silence, heads sunk in shoulders, hands in pockets. What filthy weather!
The boat once moored with a loud noise of chains, the man hurried back, stamped his feet on the old sack that served as mat and went inside his hut.
His visitor had vanished.
What was extraordinary was that he’d left a magnificent timepiece prominently and, without any doubt, deliberately in view on the chair. Made of gold.
The ferryman remained transfixed for some moments. Then he went to look outside. He saw no-one, came back inside, took off his waterproof and pocketed the watch.
Night fell. He had to maintain the service until eight o’ clock. Never, so it seemed to him, had the time passed so slowly. Every other moment he took the watch out of his pocket to check the time. Nothing flies by more quickly than years, nothing stretches out like minutes.
His nose stuck to the dusty little window of his hut, he gazed at the road, the bank of the canal, the sky that was turning purple in the distance above the high furnaces. Nearer at hand, the shining, unmoving barges. On one of them a thick yellow smoke from the chimney of a binnacle sank down on the black water.
It was then that he saw the stranger coming back with slow steps in his direction. He seemed to be very tired. Head down, ignoring the rain that drenched him all over, he seemed to be looking for something.
“For God’s sake,” the ferryman murmured, “here he is back again.”
And against his stomach, in his fob pocket, it seemed to him that the heart of the watch started to beat with emotion.
It was as though his conscience was being called to account for itself. What should he do? He hesitated a moment, decided to show himself and gestured to the man.
The latter – had he seen him? – turned his back on him at that same moment and went away again, just as slowly, in the opposite direction.
The rain became more intense. On the surface of the water it blossomed in thousands of splashes.
“So much the worse for him. In weather like this why should I chase at his heels?”
He merely watched the stranger. Who, drenched to the bone for sure, had come to a halt on the edge of the quay. His overcoat was hanging open, his hat pushed back. He now crouched down, leaned carefully on his hands in order to sit down and dangle his legs in the air like an angler.
“In weather like this! He’s mad as a hatter,” the ferryman said to himself.
A sailor emerged from the cabin of the foremost barge. He crossed the narrow gangway and ran over to him.
“What’s up with that chap over there? My wife’s been watching him for more than an hour. He’s wandering about like a lost dog. He’s going to do something stupid for sure.”
Side by side, automatically holding their breath, the two men now followed the curious goings-on.
The stranger had stood up. Arms widespread to maintain his balance, he made his uncertain way along the extreme edge of the quay. A gust of wind carried his hat away, rolling it along the road. The poor wretch made no attempt to hold onto it or to get it back.
Arrived at the place marked by a stone boundary where the quay ended and the bank of grassy earth commenced, the strange silhouette came to a standstill, his face turned toward the black expanse of the water.
The ferryman realized that the climax of the drama was at hand. He gripped the arm of his companion and said,
“He’s going to drown himself…!”
Together, the two men started to run. Ah! Those muddy puddles, those slippery paving stones, those treacherously taut cables that secured the barges…
The stranger slowly turned his head toward them, their gallop and their cries having attracted his attention. Nothing but indifference and disdain.
“Hey there!” the ferrymen shouted. “Hey there.”
But the man had finally made up his mind. Intervening in an attempt to save him, they merely hastened his fate.
The wretch threw himself forward, awkwardly, flat on the water, his coat open. He disappeared, reappeared, flailed his hands without a cry for help, without any cry at all, then sank straight down.
The search lasted late into the night in the uncertain light of the lanterns. The boatman’s wherry drifted haphazardly round the fatal site. The scull made a doleful noise, the wavelets splashed and the grappling hook at the end of its line plunged down heavily only to come back up every time so very light, so very light…
And, almost an accomplice, the incessant, dispiriting rain.
All hope gone, it was wisely left to fate. Which delivered up the body the following day.
A man who was still young, not badly dressed, with no identifying papers.
The ferryman saw him carried away on a stretcher, scarcely swollen, a stiffly horizontal arm beating time as the stretcher-bearers walked, the hem of his coat flung over his face.
From that time on the ferryman was no longer able to sleep.
The stranger remained secretly alive. Solely on account of his timepiece.
Before dying he’d rewound it one last time. It was therefore his willpower that, beyond death, kept the delicate mechanism ticking. And each day, when the ferryman made the same simple gesture with his thumb and index finger, he was aware of his continuity with the man who had disappeared, and of carrying out a sort of sacred duty.
This soon became an obsession. At any moment, the poor man held the watch to his ear in distress. He trembled at the thought of seeing it stop. And, having concealed from everyone the existence of the timepiece, he found himself prey to a growing disquiet.
Ah! If only he’d never had this damned watch he’d have quickly forgotten the anonymous drowned man! Ferrymen, in the course of their careers, are no longer affected much at all by this kind of drama.
But there was the watch! It lived in his pocket. There was its remorseless ticking, a tragic link between a young dead man and an old living one…
The ferryman’s health deteriorated rapidly. Having been stoical, he became gloomy, reticent, morose.
And one day, grey and rainy, as beastly as they come, he felt a mortal fear settling in his heart. He realized that henceforth a road of despair lay ahead of him.
That day seemed to him interminable. Sorely impatient, he awaited the evening. It was only at nightfall that he found a little peace of mind, when the factory workers had crossed the canal and gone their ways.
Then the old ferryman, instead of going home, started to prowl up and down the quay. It was deserted. No barges waiting to be unloaded. Only a deserted grey pontoon with its winch standing like a gibbet.
It was still raining. The man had left his waterproof in his hut. His corduroy jacket was soon soaked. He stopped a moment, took off his clogs and, abandoning them, resumed his silent walk in his woollen socks. Near the boundary stone, at the end of the quay and the earthen embankment, he lingered for a long time. He was sunk in misery, but oddly indifferent to his fate. If he shivered it was on account of the damp cold. He looked at the canal, big as a lake at this solitary time of day. He listened to the murmur of the black water. It spoke a singular language. It said what he was thinking. It said…
“Hey there!….” a frightened voice shouted behind him. “Hey there!…”
People came running. He couldn’t wait any longer. The time had come. The cycle was complete… He jumped.
He jumped awkwardly, badly, one foot out, his body floppy. He sank. He swallowed water that he knew was dirty, he floundered, he struggled furiously against the icy embrace…
By a miracle he was saved in time from this tight spot.
On the bank, the workers had stretched him out in the mud and roughly revived him. One doesn’t treat drowned men gently.
He came back from far away. Little by little, he regathered his spirits. He was confused and still didn’t comprehend at all well what had happened to him. In his semi-stupor, he put his hand in his fob pocket, searched feverishly for something, and groaned:
“He’s taken my watch from me!”
And, as they showed their astonishment, he tried to smile.
“Oh! not you,” he murmured. “None of you. It was him there in the water… I felt his clammy hand sure enough.”
He sat up, his hands flat on the sticky ground, his hair plastered to his face, his mouth moist with saliva. He cried, he sniffled, he was pitiful and ridiculous.
He was cured.